It’s an undeniable truth that Marvel Studios have changed the landscape of comic book movies by linking threads of story lines throughout their movie output. It’s not just a case of watching only your favourite superhero’s stand alone films, they are all the richer for their connectivity. Doctor Strange however - along with Guardian’s of the Galaxy - on the surface has little in common with the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers making it feel (aside from an aerial shot that reveals Avengers Tower in New York) like a true standalone episode in the ever expanding MCU.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a flash, Lamborghini-driving neurosurgeon more concerned with performing ‘interesting’ surgeries than something he considers run of the mill such as saving lives in the ER. After he survives a horrific, not to mention violently graphic, car accident the good doctor suffers extensive nerve damage to his hands, ending his career. Becoming increasingly desperate and beardy he hears of the miraculous recovery of a spinal patient (Benjamin Pratt) which leads him to seek a miracle of his own in Kathmandu at a mysterious enclave known as Kamar-Taj. Once there he learns that there is a battle between dark forces out to alter Earth’s reality and that we live in but one dimension of many. Under the tutelage of Tilda Swinton’s otherworldly The Ancient One and mentored by her right hand man Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) Strange masters magical powers that allow him to alter our astral plane, bend time and basically travel between dimensions that will see him on a collision course with The Ancient One’s former pupil gone bad, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
As phase 3 in Marvel Studios’ masterplan comes to fruition it’s clear that they’re not content to sit on their laurels, tackling one of their most ‘out there’ projects with the trippy mysticism of Doctor Strange. A potentially hokey concept in the wrong hands, director Scott Derrickson lends the magical, supernatural elements of the story an air of realism that doesn’t alienate the more closed-minded audience members while the rest of us are already completely on board with the universe and it’s more outlandish concepts.
Rooting things in the real world is Strange’s former love and loyal friend Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his one real connection to his previous life as a surgeon. When his battles bring him back to New York it is Christine’s help that he seeks, demonstrating his admiration and trust for her. McAdams makes for a more than capable and pro-active love interest, something that Marvel can be proud about, as she stands shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Natalie Portman and Gwyneth Paltrow’s superhero girlfriends. Smart, loyal and not likely to wear skimpy outfits and wait for their men to rescue them, these characters are every bit as vital to the MCU as their super-powered partners. While McAdams is maybe given short shrift in terms of screen time she effortlessly makes good use of her moments with Cumberbatch, the pair possessing an easy chemistry. Amongst all the mind-bendingly awesome images and action sequences on screen, it was a small, simple and human moment where the desperate Strange so cruelly rejects Christine’s efforts to help him that had the most vocal reaction from the audience in our screening. It’s harsh and we feel it because despite her relatively small amount of screen time, the audience are already on board with McAdams.
The controversy that accompanied Swinton’s casting in the role of The Ancient One proves to be totally unfounded. In the comic books The Ancient One is an East Asian old man, here we get the eternally youthful and ethereal Swinton, a white woman - and actually it works beautifully. Rather than pander to a mystical mentor stereotype that we’ve seen a million times before, Swinton truly feels otherworldly making her character arc all the more believable. She’s joined by a wonderfully stoic Ejiofor as the straight-laced and immovable Mordo, and Benedict Wong as the brilliantly dead pan librarian and drill Sergeant, with Wong - a major step up from the comic’s servile tea-maker - maybe turning out to be Doctor Strange’s Groot or Drax, nicking every scene like a seasoned bank robber. Then, there’s the ever suave Mikkelsen as the villain with a tragic past - Derrickson has amassed a classy supporting cast that helps the audience accept the crazy eye-popping visuals and mystical notions.
None of this excellent support would mean a thing if Strange himself doesn’t convince and, once again, Marvel deserve kudos and a gold star for sticking to their guns and casting Cumberbatch who so completely encompasses the role that it’s impossible to picture another donning the Cloak of Levitation. Flinty-eyed and sharp of cheekbone, Cumberbatch certainly has the right physical presence for the striking Doc but it’s his cheeky side that sells the character; arrogant at the start he’s still hugely likeable even when he says rude and hurtful things. A man of science with his own selfish reasons - although who can blame him for wanting to heal his hands and return to his old life? -for channelling these mystical powers his rationality soon gets buried as he embraces the likes of astral projection and the occult. With a costume that could make anyone possessing less gravitas look like a 1970s Vegas magician, Cumberbatch makes it work in a functional and - dare we say it - cool manner. In fact, the aforementioned Cloak of Levitation is a character in itself not dissimilar to Disney’s Aladdin’s self-aware magic carpet. Cumberbatch is clearly having a blast, letting loose and embracing the Marvel Universe as completely as he would Hamlet or Alan Turing. If there’s any doubt that his Stephen Strange would fit into the MCU then the best-so-far mid-credits sting will banish any fears and have us desperate for his turn in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War.
The visuals have to be seen to be believed, clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s building folding Inception effects, Derrickson’s team take this idea and dial it up to a Spinal Tap-esque 11, Marvel comic book legend Steve Ditko’s insane panels brought startlingly to life. Seeing it in 3D on the gigantic IMAX screen at the Cineworld Leicester Square was a truly immersive experience and one that comes highly recommended with over an hour of footage specially formatted for IMAX.
Doctor Strange proves to be a wonderfully mind-bending trip, a brave step into a wider cinematic universe. The gamble is pulled off in spectacular style and for once is truly like nothing we’ve seen before. Turn on, tune in and drop out to Marvel’s kaleidoscopic triumph.